TALLAHASSEE — The death of an unarmed 17-year-old and a police department's reluctance to charge or arrest the neighborhood watch captain who shot him has stoked a national debate about a 2005 Florida law at the center of the case.
The "stand your ground" law — approved overwhelmingly by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush — allows people to use deadly force in cases of self-defense when they believe their life is at risk.
George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, has told police he acted in self-defense when he shot Trayvon Martin Feb. 26.
In Tallahassee on Tuesday, several Democrats called for the 2005 law to be reviewed, amended or repealed, while leading Republicans, including the sponsors of the original legislation, said "stand your ground" might not — or should not — apply in this case.
"When we passed the law, we said it portends horrific events when people's lives were put into these situations, and my worst fears came to fruition," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who was in the House in 2005 and voted against the bill. "A young life was snuffed out."
The law passed in 2005 with broad bipartisan support, including a unanimous vote in the Senate. Original Senate sponsor Durell Peaden said Tuesday it was crafted after an old man from Pensacola shot an intruder who tried to loot his hurricane-ravaged home. The old man, whose name Peaden could no longer remember, had to hire a lawyer and fret that he'd be charged.
Previously, Floridians outside of their home, workplace or car were required to use every reasonable means available to avoid danger before using deadly force.
Peaden and state Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who sponsored the measure in the House, said the law might not apply to Zimmerman — because he decided to pursue and confront a person like Martin and then use deadly force.
"They got the goods on him. They need to prosecute whoever shot the kid," said Peaden, a Crestview Republican. "He has no protection under my law."
Baxley was a little more circumspect in calling for Zimmerman's arrest.
"I don't want to make that judgment call based on speculation," Baxley said. "I just want to reinforce that there's nothing in this statute that authorizes people to pursue and confront people."
More than 20 states have adopted similar rules, according to Legal Community Against Violence, an organization dedicated to preventing gun violence.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a former Florida House speaker, said it was too early to say whether there should be changes to the "stand your ground" law.
"We don't know the details of whether that is even a defense available to the individual involved," Rubio said. "Let's let the Justice Department go in — these are professionals, they'll know what they're looking for — before people rush to judgment on whether a change in law is (necessary)."
Of the law, Rubio said: "I voted for it, and I think there is rationale behind it, but we have no idea whether that applies at all in this case. I think that's very important to understand."
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, called for the Senate to hold hearings on and how the law is being applied. Martin, who was visiting his father in Central Florida, lived in Braynon's district.
"It shouldn't be that, if you feel intimidated by someone, you can pull a gun on someone and shoot them? That's not the kind of law we need," Braynon said.
Rep. Mia Jones, who chairs the legislative black caucus and is a Democrat from Jacksonville, said she will go further and file legislation repealing "stand your ground" in 2013.
"For me, the right answer for 'stand your ground' is to repeal it," she said. ". . . I don't think this is a society that we want to live in."
On Tuesday, a handful of Tallahassee area criminal defense lawyers, most of them African-American, led a group of about 50 protesters demanding action from Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott told the crowd he would let the ongoing investigations run their course before taking additional action, but if something is found wrong with "stand your ground" he would want the law changed.
"If what's happening is it's being abused, that's not right for this state," he told the group. "We all want to live in a safe place."
Times researcher Caryn Baird and Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Tia Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.